Wiggershaus' monumental study of the history and intellectual trajectory of the Frankfurt School uses archival sources, interviews, and comprehensive analysis of published works to provide the most complete and up-to-date account of the development and contributions of one of the century's most influential group of scholars. Originally located within the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Friedrich Pollock, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, and their other associates helped set the agenda for much social theory in the turbulent era from the 1930s through the 1960s. Through their influence on Jurgen Habermas and his associates, and other social theorists and critics throughout the world, the Frankfurt School continues to be an important force in the contemporary era.
The translation of Wiggershaus's superb study, originally published in German in 1986, is therefore extremely welcome and anyone interested in contemporary social theory should read this book. Wiggershaus explicates the key positions of the Frankfurt School's critical theory of society, and brilliantly traces its evolution and development. He lays bare for the first time the complex relations between various members of this group and raises serious questions concerning their positions at various times, thus the text is in the best sense a critical historiography.
Wiggershaus's text includes detailed discussions of the Frankfurt school's metatheory, their general theoretical positions, as well as their substantive contributions to contemporary social theory and criticism. Those unfamiliar with the group's complex trajectory will be surprised at the extent to which they contributed to methodological issues and pioneered many empirical research strategies. The Frankfurt School was perhaps the first group to undertake, in conjunction with Paul Lazarsfeld, systematic critical inquiries into the roles of mass communications and culture in contemporary societies, and inaugurated research into the authoritarian personality that drew heavily on Freudian theory. They carried out a series of pioneering studies of anti-semitism and developed novel methods of group interviews in their studies of workers' attitudes during late Weimar and post-World War II German society. They also carried out "group experiments" in interviewing Germans' attitudes toward democracy in post-war Germany.
While in exile at Columbia University from 1934 through the late 1940s, Institute scholars produced penetrating theoretical studies of contemporary societies, including critical analyses of German fascism. Upon their return to Frankfurt in the 1950s, they introduced American methods of empirical research in Germany, though criticized empiricist approaches that eschewed theoretical and critical positions in the so-called "positivism debate." Rejecting both empty speculation without empirical research, and blind empiricism without theory, the Institute theorists attempted to blend theoretical construction with empirical inquiry. But critical theory also maintained normative perspectives and Wiggershaus indicates how their standpoint of critique and critical strategies changed over the years.
Max Horkheimer emerges as the Frankfurt School's dominant figure in Wiggershaus's account, though the portrait is not always flattering. Horkheimer was director of the Institute for Social Research during the early 1930s and exile period in the United States, and tightly controlled the publications and discussions of the Institute. Upon the return to Germany of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Pollock in the late 1940s, Horkheimer played a strong administrative role in Frankfurt University, but a less active role in the development of critical theory, a position that devolved on Adorno and later Habermas (while Marcuse continued to develop critical theory in the United States until his death in 1979).
Wiggershaus shows how Horkheimer wavered between wanting to guide an interdisciplinary research Institute dedicated to developing a transdisciplinary social theory of the present age grounded in empirical studies of political economy, and wanting to engage in more philosophically-oriented theoretical work with T.W. Adorno. Wiggershaus documents the shifts back and forth from interdisciplinary work with an empirical focus to more philosophical theorizing on the part of Adorno and Horkheimer in particular. The overall impression that emerges is that the Frankfurt School never really realized their project of developing an interdisciplinary theory of the present age and that Horkheimer and Adorno were more interested in engaging in purely theoretical projects, such as the studies that constituted _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, rather than carrying out interdisciplinary research.
_The Frankfurt School_ also raises the question of whether the group really constituted a "school" at all, by stressing the differences among its members and the different positions that they took during different periods on fundamental issues. But Wiggershaus's study also makes clear that the Institute members produced a variety of works of lasting interest and importance. His lively portraits of the Institute's key figures makes the personalities come alive and he incisively presents the key ideas. Yet the "Frankfurt School" emerges not so much as a "school," with a set method, doctrine, and defining positions as a group of individuals, often with their own interests and agendas, which sometimes coalesced and sometimes diverged.
Wiggershaus pays close attention to the differences and debates within the group and carefully charts the complex developments of each individual thinker, as well as the changing relationships between the various members of the Institute. _The Frankfurt School_ in conjunction with planned and forthcoming editions of the complete works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse, and other key members of the group thus makes possible a deeper understanding of the richness and variety of critical theory than was previously possible. And, finally, Wiggershaus critically probing of their various positions shows that the Institute never really fully developed a critical theory of contemporary society which remains a challenge for the present age.